Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (1972-1958)
Suite for Viola and Pianoforte (1934/36) [25:32]
Romance for Viola and Pianoforte [6:35]
Six Studies in English Folk Song (1926) [[7:46]
Fantasia on Greensleeves [4:14]
Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes (1929) [10:38]
Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Pianoforte (1912-14) [14:12]
Martin Outram (viola)
Julian Rolton (piano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Recording Studio, Monmouthshire; Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD036 [69:27]
Over the last few weeks I’ve been immersed in the symphonies and orchestral music of Vaughan Williams, courtesy of Bryden Thomson. Enriching experience though that has been, this disc of music by VW on a more intimate scale has been a welcome contrast.
As Martin Outram reminds us in his notes, Vaughan Williams played the viola for most of his life. He took up the instrument while he was a pupil at Charterhouse School and he played it as an amateur for the rest of his life. Two of the works included in this programme, the Suite and the Romance, were inspired by Lionel Tertis who premiered VW’s most celebrated work for viola, Flos Campi, in 1925: that latter work is dedicated to Tertis.
The Suite was composed for viola and small orchestra but here it’s presented in the piano reduction which the composer himself made two years after the completion of the original version. I was intrigued to read in the notes that VW apparently had difficulty over the composition of the work; listening to it, one would not think so. The Suite consists of eight movements, most of them short, and the movements were apparently sub-divided into three groups. No further detail is forthcoming on that point, but my guess is that the first three movements and the last four each constituted a group with the fourth movement, Ballad, which is by far the longest, standing alone. The opening Prelude is flowingly attractive and the sensitive performance of Martin Outram and Julian Rolton bodes well. Carol, which follows, is folk-like and contains music of wistful simplicity. Then comes a sturdy Christmas Dance. The fourth movement, Ballad, takes just over six minutes to play and it takes the Suite onto a new, deeper level. This movement is slow and soulful, a pensive reflection. At 2:37 the piano introduces a livelier, dance-like idea which I expected would form a central section but this proves illusory; the episode is short-lived and VW returns to reflective mode. This movement is akin, I think, to a still, deep pool of water held, for the most part, in shade from the sun. The Moto perpetuo which follows is a bundle of seemingly never-ending energy while the next movement, Musette, is another wistful creation; here the sound of the viola is admirably suited to the material. After a Polka Mélancholique, the last movement, Galop, is robust and forms a strong conclusion to the Suite. This is a rewarding work and I enjoyed the present performance very much.
It’s not possible to date the Romance accurately, though Martin Outram tells us that it’s thought that VW wrote it for Tertis during the First World War. Unplayed by Tertis – or anyone else, it seems - it was only discovered among VW’s papers after his death and it finally achieved a premiere in 1962. Goodness knows why the piece was filed away by VW because it’s an excellent small composition which skilfully exploits the viola’s soulful qualities. As Outram says, the piece “develops from a sense of dreamy reverie to intense passion and restlessness.” He and Julian Rolton certainly put that across in their performance
In writing about the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes, Martin Outram quotes from a review of the 1930 premiere which appeared in The Times. The critic commented thus: “The composer picks the flowers and arranges them in a vase. He does not pull them to pieces, petal from petal, or invite us to examine them under a microscope or dye them in unusual colours with aniline harmonies. They remain themselves from first to last.” I think that’s a very perceptive way of summing up not just VW’s affection for the folksongs he collected but, crucially, the respect he felt for them, which comes out invariably in his treatment of folk tunes in his works.
That affection and respect is well to the fore in the Six Studies in English Folk Song. Though composed in 1926, the six songs were collected by VW between 1903 and 1908, four of them in East Anglia. The Studies were originally written for cello and piano but subsequently VW arranged the work for three different alternative solo instruments: violin, viola and clarinet. The first five Studies are in slow or moderate time and focus on the nostalgic, melancholic side of folk song. The final Study, based on As I Walked Over London Bridge, is brisk and jolly. VW doesn’t smother these fine tunes by over-arranging them; rather, he clothes them lightly in new apparel, but his lightness of touch allows these excellent melodies to speak for themselves.
Apparently, Michael Kennedy believed that the Six Studies gave VW the impetus to compose the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes three years later. This was written for cello and orchestra and the dedicatee of the work, Pablo Casals was the first to play it in public. However, it appears that VW was dissatisfied with the work and withdrew it. The version played here on the viola, as arranged by Martin Outram, uses a published piano reduction by John Lenehan. This, I understand, is the first recording of Outram’s arrangement, which has recently been published by OUP. Five traditional songs are woven into the piece and as Martin Outram observes, the treatment of the melodies is “spirited and poignant by turn”. It’s an attractive work and it’s well done here.
The ‘Greensleeves’ Fantasia is a fairly slight work, though pleasing nonetheless. As heard here, it’s an arrangement of an arrangement. The Fantasia itself is the work of Ralph Greaves who in 1934, with the composer’s support, fashioned it from music contained in Sir John in Love. A number of arrangements were made over the following years and this one, for viola and piano, by Watson Forbes was published in 1947.
The Four Hymns is, in my view, the work of greatest stature on this CD. It can be performed either with viola obbligato and string orchestra or, as here, by viola and piano. For this work, Outram and Rolton are joined by Mark Padmore. The Hymns were composed between 1912 and 1914 and were scheduled to receive their first performance in Worcester in September 1914. I imagine that planned performance was to have been at the Three Choirs Festival, which was cancelled on the outbreak of World War I. (The Festival eventually mounted a performance by Steuart Wilson, in the orchestral version, in 1920.) Three of the Hymns are settings of words by seventeenth-century authors. All four are splendidly done here. In Lord! Come away! by Jeremy Taylor, Mark Padmore conveys the ardour and excitement that’s present in both words and music. In Who is this fair one? (Isaac Watts) VW captures in his music the rapt ecstasy of the text and builds the hymn until the final stanza, which is a great outpouring of feeling. Come Love, come Lord (Richard Crawshaw) is more inward in nature. The music is beautiful and Padmore’s singing is wonderfully poised. The last hymn, Evening Hymn, is a setting of Robert Graves’ translation of lines from the Greek as ‘O Gladsome Light’ Here the three musicians build the tension of their performance expertly and Padmore’s strong, plangent voice is ideally suited to the music. If I’ve seemed to focus on the singer in these comments that’s because, by definition, the artist who delivers the words is thrust centre stage. However, in these Hymns the viola by no means plays “second fiddle”; rather, the instrument provides an essential counterpoint to the vocal line and complements the singer’s part most successfully while the piano part is of no less importance. All three musicians work as a team here to give a deeply satisfying performance.
This is a rewarding and very enjoyable disc. The performances are exemplary and have been recorded most sympathetically by the engineers. Martin Outram’s notes are insightful and interesting.